BY: Benjamin Heller
The sun is almost up and I’m running out of water. All I can see in front of me is sand and sea, despite every neuron in my rational mind insisting that there must be more than meets the eye. But a ship of such size could hardly hide on such a flat landscape. I gaze intently towards the horizon, which glow dimly as if in gentle sympathy for my predicament. Cursed with a mind partial to, if not obsessed with, calculations and reasoning, I cannot help but to deduce that, as I see no ship, nor smoke columns against the paling dome, that there is no one coming for me. Turning my back on the sea, and the sparkle of the rising sun on the softly lapping waves, I ponder the way I came. With the glare of the sun still safely below the curve of the earth, I can make out my footprints on the sand going back quite a ways before they get lost in ocean of gray. It had taken me some of the afternoon, and all of last night to cross this small desert, and I had been near sprinting at times. The cool air and plentiful water had made the going easy and fast – I had expended much of my energy with the assumption that I would be arriving on civilized shores, so to speak.
The heat at this time of year exceeds a hundred degrees during the day. I would need to make my decision carefully, and quickly, if I was to have any chance of surviving. I knew now with utmost certainty that my assumption had put my life at great risk. At the time, I thought it a small risk against that which I faced from where I began. But now, faced with nature’s uncompromising wrath, I felt that the human ire I had roused was but a joke. With a heavy feeling descending upon me, I took one last look at the glimmering water – so tempting it was to immerse myself and enjoy the beautiful illusion of safety among the fish, splashing in the surf, and forgetting my troubles. I had not yet reached the insanity to think to drink the water – our eternal mother’s spiteful poison for the unwary – but the cool comfort of its dark depths pulled at me as I turned away for the last time. I had made up my mind.
We are told that the human body can survive up to three days without water. However, I know my window was far shorter than that. I would be walking at a brisk pace, all day, in the hot sun. A day would be optimistic. It would not be so bad, either, if my destination were as clear as the one I sought last night. In the night I was guided by the stars, and as the sky brightened, by the distant coast visible for miles away. During the day I would have no stars, and my footprints would be barely visible even if they should be spared by wind. Furthermore, my destination was a small town in the middle of the desert – the only water I had hope of reaching, and also made nearly invisible by the sand-cement buildings. I will confess I am not hopeful about the outcome of this venture. But I know with absolute certainty that my friends are not coming, that they are dead, and that I will be too if I wait any longer.
I estimate that it must be now around nine in the morning, and I can no longer see the shore. I have run out of water, and my mouth is already dry and sticky. The heat is still not unbearable, though I can feel the warm air around my like a spectral cushion foreshadowing my demise. Yet I have made good progress, and I can still make out my trail in the sand, though I can barely see ten paces ahead with the sunlight reflected in my eyes. Because I left so late in the day yesterday, with the sun already on its way to the other side of the earth, and the temperature dropping by the minute, I am not appropriately dressed for this kind of exposure. My forearms are bare and I can feel the skin searing, and the rag of cloth I affixed to my head already feels like its on fire. As I make my way from the sea the sand gets softer, and the going tougher. The flat plane gives way to gentle dunes, and my footprints are lost to the morning breeze. I keep a straight path as best I can, gauging from the path I took to any marker in front of me, and thus I work my way by approximation.
A shadow passes over me – so profound a change in temperature is that brief relief from sunlight that I notice immediately. My first vulture. This one is just a scout, circling above for a moment before soaring off to scour for more suitable prey. But it will be back. For some reason I find its appearance both strangely comforting and amusing. I want to laugh, but I keep my mouth closed to conserve moisture. I settle with a rueful smile to the wasteland before me, and then I fix my face once again towards what I can only hope is the town I seek. So intent is my foresight that I stumble and fall face-first on a flat rocky area. My climate of sandy dunes has been cut with a jagged scar of rock, jutting upward with both vicious spires and rounded slopes, both carved by the master artistry of the four winds. I curse myself for my inattentiveness and pull myself up, noting with some alarm a shallow scrape below my left knee. Precious water oozes out, and I tie a quick bandage, relieved to feel the blood clotting with the cotton material.
Climbing down from the rocky outcrop, I once again find myself in a sea of sand, and I begin plodding on. The heat is unbearable now, and though the sun is not yet at its highest point, I feel as though god is firing his clay creation in his mighty kiln. For a second I feel myself go dizzy, and I lower myself carefully but quickly to the ground. I do not want to pass out. As I stare at the ground, a few inches from my face, I count the seconds and thank each one for keeping me conscious. Slowly, I rise to my feet. A feeling of panic pulls itself out of my gut and fights its way up my torso. I dismiss it. With a deep breath, I look ahead. I take a step. Then another. When I look back again, I can see that I dropped something where I stopped. Half of me wonders what it was, but I do not go back. I have made significant progress since then, and whatever it is does not matter. I put it out of my mind, and keep walking.
Noon came and passed before I realized that it is my canteen that now lies abandoned in the sand some ways back. Again, I have to smile. Fate, it seems, is thinking for me. What use is an empty canteen? The weight of a container is generally in the liquid within, but any weight that I could be rid of ought to be gotten rid of. Yet I am still loath to drop anything I carry – I cannot feel the toll of each minuscule burden. So I carry on, laden with all sorts of oddities that a solitary man crossing a desert with the sole intent of surviving till the next day could not possibly need. As I keep walking, I feel a sense of calm. Each step is no harder than the previous, and my pace is good. I feel worry leave me as though it were water pouring from my canteen into my mouth. I am at ease. And then I hear the impossible. A human voice.
“You’re making awfully good progress”
I turn quickly, but I cannot see the speaker. I answer with lips glue shut by dryness, and in a voice impossibly clear, I call out “Who’s there?”
“I mean, considering your handicaps, I would say you have done very well indeed. A pity you won’t make it.”
With an unimaginable terror seizing me, I twist my head round and see someone I cannot bear to look at. I snap my head back and stare at the vast nothingness ahead of me.
“There’s no point in ignoring me,” says the figure, “I can keep pace with you, and can keep talking till you choose to listen.”
My voice has the appropriate rasp this time as I croak out “Go away.”
“I shall do no such thing.”, comes the answer, followed by an amused laugh. With a short burst of speed, my unwelcome companion darts ahead of me so I am forced to regard him in full. He is dressed in rags, torn and soaked with sweat. His skin is pale, though tanned and burned in places; his hair dark, his eyes are light. He i tall, and his expression is unreadable, though his eyes hold a beastly merriment I have never seen in them before. Below his left knee is a bloody rag tied around the calf, with an unpleasant scrape poking around the outside. I am looking at myself.
The fear that gripped me is difficult to describe. I was not far gone enough to accept this apparition as simply a common occurrence in what would surely be a delirious world where normal rules do not apply. My mind was right enough to recognize wrong, and this hallucination triggered a computational part of my mind that came to the conclusion that I had not long left to live. But beyond that, my dying mind had conjured up something to torment me in my last hours; it is sad to think that my death would be spent in a waking nightmare. So driven by both rational and irrational fears, I plunged ahead with desperation, not so much refusing to acknowledge my accuser as inadvertently neglecting him. But he was not so easily dealt with.
“Isn’t it interesting” he wondered aloud, “how your mind is currently at a stage in between certain levels of consciousness, and thus is able to bring a certain amount of understanding from one to the other? If you were not so intent on walking, you might reflect on this to some effect.”
I gave an agonized moan inside sealed lips, and tried to clear my mind of thoughts.
“This of course poses some interesting questions. After all, you are on the threshold of what one might almost call a lucid hallucination. Surely you can appreciate the power available to you in this?”
All of a sudden a tattered piece of cloth that had been my pant leg snaked around my ankle, and with a clumsy foot I pulled it taut and sent myself hurtling towards the unforgiving ground. Without the energy to cry out, I could only manage something that was almost a sob. The sand was unbearably hot. Against my exposed and abused skin it burned with a ferocity that made me open my mouth for the first time in hours, though I recalled speaking only minutes ago. I tried to summon the strength to stand, and failed. I pivoted my head to peer at the sun and saw it still high in the sky. With a sudden realization, I knew I was going to die.
“That certainly took you long enough” remarked my counterpart snidely, “But now that I have your attention, might I propose something to you?”
With my own mortality certain, I seemed to have nothing to lose. Embracing the fiery surface I looked upon myself, who was now reclining disdainfully on the sand beside me. He spoke again:
“In a way, it is interesting that you of all people should be given this opportunity. You are a man who has never sought any sort of meaning in life, and who was content with the material world and the pleasures it has to offer. And now, robbed of all material except that of great pain, you see the truth in matter.”
I did, and I tried to nod.
“Now, now” he said, with a look of feigned concern “You just relax there and don’t exert yourself. I have more to say and I want you to have time to hear it.”
I could not speak, but with my eyes I implored him to go on.
“Consider your mind. Within it there are chemical reactions taking place at an incredible rate. We depend on outside stimuli to trigger things within our mind – but what if this were not so? If we could completely internalize our mind, why, we could speed up our thoughts dramatically!”
“I see you do not understand where I’m going with this”, he continued, “but allow me to carry on. You stand – well, lie – on the threshold of death itself. The only thing that separates you from that is time. But what is time but the duration of chemical reactions in our brain? If those reactions were sped up, then time would be more abundant, would they not? And so you see your opportunity, I presume. You are between two parts of your mind – and you can communicate between them. You have but little time in the real world, but you could have a whole lifetime in your mind. You could have ten lifetimes, because you have a lifetime to figure out how to prolong your existence!”
My world was slipping from me. I could feel it. But his voice was clear. Suddenly I found myself in a sea of water, clear, fresh, and beautiful. I floated on top, looking down through the blue depths. I dip my hand down, and scoop a handful to my mouth. But the water is as hot as lava, and it burns. Yet I cannot put it down, cannot drop it. I cannot do anything but draw that beautiful water to my mouth and drink the scalding liquid. I have but one mouthful when a hand grasps my wrist. I am looking down at my hand, and it is full of sand. A hot coal of burning sand is in my mouth, and I spit it out with every ounce of self preservation.
“Please” the voice says, this time with desperation, “I am asking you. You don’t have much time to do this. I need you to do this, you must understand. I offer you enlightenment – something men have killed for, mind you – and not only that, I offer you your life. If you take it, we both survive. If you don’t, you die, and I die. Neither of us has a wish to die, but I cannot do this on my own.”
I know he is right, but it is too late. My mind is too far gone. The world dissolves again and this time the water is a vast lake of tar – hot and burning, and I am sinking. Slowly – oh, so slowly I sink into the heat and the darkness, impenetrable darkness, and the suffocating closeness of the inky black fluid. The pain is gone, but the heat remains. Then that leaves too, and I know that I am done for. My head is all that remains above the liquid tomb, and I cry for help with every ounce of physical and mental strength I have left. I see my companion striding across the surface, racing towards me. He thrusts out his hand and I free mine from the tar to grasp it. He is pulling me with all his might, and I with mine. I look up into his eyes, and I understand what he was saying, I understand how I can survive. But my hand slips, and slides from his grip, and I am falling, sinking into the unimaginable horror below.